Geek Love was the book written in Portland that most revealed the character of Portland—a big-hearted, heartsick place filled with darkness and obsessed with oddity. Katherine Dunn's 1989 novel was the story of circus family the Binewskis—flipper-armed Arty and psychokinetic Chip, conjoined Elly and Iphy, resentful dwarf Oly—bred to be freaks by their family.
The book made the careers of its publisher and its cover illustrator, and created a devoted fan base who may have thought they were otherwise alone. As director and Monty Pythoner Terry Gilliam said, it was "the most romantic novel about love and family I have read."
(courtesy of Katherine Dunn estate)
Dunn, a WW writer and columnist for many years, passed away last May. But she had already been working with the library at Lewis & Clark College to donate her meticulously kept records—correspondence with writers from Stephen King to Brett Easton Ellis, drafts of her book in progress, and the strange and variegated things the books' eternal fans sent her through the mails.
A selection from the Dunn collection, "The Horror of Normalcy: Katherine Dunn, Geek Love, and Cult Literature"—curated by English professor Michael Mirabile and Lewis & Clark student Sydney Owada—will be on display in the college's library throughout August. (Opening night reception is Tuesday, April 4, at 5-7 pm in Lewis and Clark's Watzek Library.)
Here's what you can expect to find.
Geeks Biting Off Chicken Heads
People love Geek Love. They love it in a way that takes over their lives. They love it in a way that has them hunched over their desks for hours drawing pictures of it. And, well, they sent some of their drawings to Dunn, who kept them—whether colorful Mama Lil Binewski ready to bite the head off a chicken, or eerily beautiful evocations of the melancholy of conjoined twins.
The fans didn't just draw the Binewski family. They created them literally out of whole cloth, in the form of a creepy plushy Arty with his wittle fwipper fins, a weirdly Orientalist Arty doll, a version of the two-headed twins that's both male and fanged, and a terrifying Oly complete with sculpted, crusted snot.
Brett Easton Ellis Ass-Kissing
Easton Ellis was reportedly hurt by reviews of American Psycho, and received encouragement from Dunn—whose letter, he wrote, he "carried around with me for a week, stunned and blushing."
Shade on Joyce Carol Oates
The great editor Gordon Lish didn't edit Geek Love—but he did greenlight it. He and Dunn were likewise united in their seething hatred of famously prolific writer Joyce Carol Oates. "Terry says that you're a sportswriter, a boxing writer, and that you might wish to dismantle Ms. Oates," Lish writes in a letter collected here. Dunn responds in kind that she had a "bone to beat Oates with—her perpetual pissing from high places only bored me til she hit my turf." Dunn then apologizes for her right-justified typewriter, which, she writes, she bought from "Republican dope growers of the anal attentive persuasion."
Crazy Circus Yearbooks
Specifically, the Mystery Girls' Circus, a lovely art-filled companion piece to Geek Love printed in 1991 in a tiny edition, with multiple pages of 3-D art. "All the zoomy magic of the Mystery Girls' Circus and Fun College," the book begins, "derives from the splendid fact that two redheads are better than one."
See and marvel at the Binouski (as it was then spelled) family tree, as first incepted! Track the bonus dead babies, once conceived by Lil and Aloysius—the Foot and the Fist, for example, and Leona the lizard-tailed, and vegetal Apple drowned by her dad! Janus with a head emerging from his spine! Boneless Maple devoid of genitalia! And poor, poor Clifford, "born with his entire ventral side open like a tray full of organs."
Geek Love has been translated into Japanese, Catalan, Finnish, French, Polish and German (as Binewski: The Fall of a Radioactive Family). It was translated into Italian—not once but twice. "People talk about the depth of people's fascination with Geek Love," says Hannah Crummé, Lewis & Clark's director of special collections. "What's surprising is the breadth."
Multiple Geek drafts
How often do you get to watch a book you love start three different ways? From abandoned subtitles (The Autobiography of a Bald, Albino, Hunchback, Pygmy Woman) to abandoned beginnings to the book ("My father's name was Aloysius Binouski. He was raised in a carnival sideshow which he inherited at the age of twenty-two when his father died."), you can look in on Dunn's obsessive writing and rewriting of the book, in her own handwriting—watching as she scribbled in adjective after adjective onto her typewritten manuscripts, inventing the language of Geek Love draft by draft until each sentence became its own carnivalesque world. It is a place in which more is always more, and less is always less.
"The Horror of Normalcy: Katherine Dunn, Geek Love, and Cult Literature" is at Lewis & Clark College's Watzek Library, 0615 SW Palatine Hill Road, 503-768-7259, lclark.edu. Through Aug. 31. Free. There will be an opening-night reception Tuesday, April 4 at 5–7 pm.